When I read this back in 2016, I said that aside from a couple quibbles about the ending I enjoyed it thoroughly and that I thought the stakes were perfect; believably high without the threat of the end of the world. On this reread, for a book club, I still have one quibble about the ending (regarding the identity of two characters), but I was more completely taken with the book this time. I love a carnivalesque story with fantasy or magical realist touches. While I would give the edge in this weird subgenre to Geek Love, Swamplandia and Nights at the Circus which are all a little darker than this, it very much belongs on the same shelf. I enjoyed it even more this time.
The novel opens as the famous magician Prospero, whose stage show is actual magic masquerading as an illusionist show, discovers he has a daughter, Celia, who, once he has been given custody of her in the wake of her mother’s death, has some natural capacity for magic. He contacts a friend/rival, called Mr. Alexander, and proposes another in an apparently long series of contests between their apprentices. Alexander agrees and chooses a boy named Marco and teaches him how to use magic, in a much more academic, less intuitive way. The rest of the book is the decades long magical duel between the two acolytes on the field of a mysterious circus that appears in a town fully set up, runs only at night, then one day disappears as quickly as it showed up.
And the circus itself is what is brilliant about the book. The two young magicians strive to create attractions for the circus that will dazzle. Marco is a behind the scenes partner of the person who nominally owns the circus and does bookkeeping and planning. Celia takes up her father’s mantle and becomes a performer who does real magic disguised as illusions. As they meet and gradually realize they are antagonists, they begin to try to impress and outdo each other even as they, inevitably, fall for each other. That the central conflict/battle of the novel is aesthetic rather than moral is bracing. This is not a good vs. evil with MCU level world ending stakes. And yet ethical/moral questions creep in as they realize the effect their duel is having on the other members of the circus. The stakes, as I said four years ago, are perfect.
I am a still annoyed at who Mr. Alexander and Prospero are revealed to be and how on the nose the info dump at the end that makes sure the reader gets it. I think Morgenstern seeded that throughout the book well enough that the explanation was unnecessary. But that didn’t ruin the experience. Other than that small complaint and my mild aversion to love-conquers-all finales in general, I loved it. It’s straightforward plotwise, and the prose is good. And the exhibits the combatants create linger in the mind, which is much of the point. I will read more of Morgenstern’s work and will probably read this at least a third time.
Rereads And Everything Else 31/35